"Safeguarding the environment is not an optional extra, it is an essential part of how companies must operate" - Environment Agency responds to verdict

Thames Water Utility face a record breaking fine
Thames Water Utility face a record breaking fine

Thames Water Utilities Ltd (Thames Water) has today (22 March) been fined an unprecedented £20,361,140.06 in fines and costs for a series of significant pollution incidents on the River Thames. These offences were caused by negligence and led to the death of wildlife and distress to the public.

The prosecution saw six separate cases - which caused widespread, repeated, sustained and avoidable pollution at a number of sites from 2012 to 2014 - brought together in one hearing at Aylesbury Crown Court. It is the biggest freshwater pollution case in the Environment Agency’s 20 year history.

The court heard how TWUL’s repeated illegal discharges of sewage into the River Thames, and its tributaries, resulted in major environmental damage including visible sewage along 14 kilometres of the river, and the death of birds, fish and invertebrates.

The multiple incidents from the company’s wastewater sites in Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire caused significant distress and disruption to the public. Riverside residents, farmers, local businesses, anglers, and recreational river users were all affected. Sailing regattas and other events on the River Thames were also disrupted.

Investigations carried out by Environment Agency officers revealed a catalogue of failures by TWUL management. This involved repeated discharges of untreated or poorly treated raw sewage into rivers, disregarding risks identified by their own staff and failing to react adequately to thousands of high priority alarms used to alert them to the serious problems.

The Court heard how for weeks, untreated sewage, amounting to millions of litres per day, was diverted to the rivers and away from the treatment process, although the incoming sewage flow was well within the designed capacity of the treatment works. In many instances less than half of the incoming sewage was sent for treatment.

It was pointed out to the Court that local residents impacted by the pollution were also customers of TWUL and were paying the company to have their sewage treated to the legally required standards - standards which protect the environment.

Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, said: "Water and sewerage companies provide a vital service to the community. Where they experience problems through no fault of their own we will always work with them to resolve them but where negligence causes serious pollution, or a serious threat to the environment, we will seek the strongest possible penalties.

"This case sends a clear signal to the industry that safeguarding the environment is not an optional extra, it is an essential part of how all companies must now operate”.

His Honour Judge Sheridan, condemned the “disgraceful conduct” of Thames Water Utilities Limited, which he said was “entirely foreseeable and preventable.”

It was “a very dark period in the history of Thames Water” who demonstrated “scant regard for the law, with dreadful results for people who live in the area.”

He congratulated the Environment Agency for their “painstaking and thorough investigation”, and added that he hopes the courts never see the like of such a case again.

When commenting on the level of the fines, His Honour Judge Sheridan, noted this was a record breaking fine for record breaking offending. He asks that the fines must be met by Thames Water, and not be passed onto customers; it was the company, not the customers, who broke the law.

Anne Brosnan, Chief Prosecutor for the Environment Agency said: “Thames Water was completely negligent to the environmental dangers created by the parlous state of its works. Our investigation revealed that we were dealing with a pattern of unprecedented pollution incidents which could have been avoided if Thames Water had been open and frank with the Environment Agency as required by water company industry protocol.

“Members of the public are our eyes and ears so if you see any signs of pollution in a watercourse near you please report it to the Environment Agency Incident Hotline on 0800 80 70 60.”

The offences caused officers to work around the clock for lengthy periods, responding to reports of pollution, attending to clean up and river recovery and in undertaking very detailed and complex investigations.

The ongoing investigation included intelligence gathering, monitoring, interviews and analysis by the Environment Agency and resulted in bringing the company to court to face the consequences.